MusicWeb International
Simon Thompson
This is the highest profile treat to come my way so far during the Wagner bicentenary year, and what a treat it is! Jonas Kaufmann has thus far been fairly cautious in his forays into Wagner, but they have been thrillingly exciting when they have come. His Wagner on disc has come through his Lohengrin (Munich) and Siegmund (New York) on DVD, as well as some tantalising passages from Walküre,Lohengrin and Parsifal on his Sehnsucht album. His stage forays into Wagner have been restricted to the more lyrical heroes that suit his voice type so well. Truth be told, if he wants to look after his instrument then that’s probably where he should stay. However, this album gives us some even more tantalising glimpses into some of those heroes, as well as others that Kaufmann will probably never take further. It’s a real treat for the ears.

Kaufmann’s Siegmund has turned heads, not least my own in his recent recording with Gergiev, because he combines smouldering romantic ardour with just the right element of heroism. He is hugely exciting to listen to here. The dark, burnished quality to his voice is one of the finest selling points of this disc as a whole, but it suits Siegmund particularly well. The darkness of the voice makes Siegmund’s long dark night of the soul sound all the more compelling, even dangerous. The cries of Wälse! are thrilling, both in their length and in their tonal colour. Furthermore, he sounds completely desperate, reminding us both that this character is at his wits’ end and that Kaufmann is a great vocal actor. The rest of the excerpt, after the Wälse section, sounds much more tender and focused, which makes sense because he is singing about Sieglinde, after all. It subsides gently towards its end, making this monologue a powerful journey all by itself. However, he then carries Siegmund’s romantic ardour into the Forest Murmurs, meaning that there is none of the sense of innocence or excited discovery that should really characterise this extract. It’s magnificently sung and it’s beautiful to listen to, but it’s not Siegfried! However, the orchestral playing is fantastic here, all the solos standing out brilliantly against the shimmering bed of the strings.

Rienzi’s prayer also begins with some beautiful orchestral playing, floating in gently on the winds. Kaufmann’s singing is superb here too. He gets the scale of the aria - if you can call it that - just right and it unfolds majestically before your ears. In this he is undoubtedly helped by Runnicles who paces it perfectly. He keeps the orchestra alongside Kaufmann so that he never overwhelms him. Tannhäuser’s Rome narration is even finer. There is a real sense of broken heroism to his portrayal of the knight, reminding us again that this episode sees the character at breaking point. His weariness at his unsuccessful pilgrimage is evident. At the same time, however, there is a grandeur to it all, dignifying Tannhäuser’s suffering. He goes into an almost half-voice when quoting the Pope’s words of condemnation, which is great acting, but it does mean that the climax on “verdammt”is somewhat lost. After that, however, a palpable sense of mania sets in when he begins to fantasise about getting back into the Venusberg. The orchestra and Runnicles seem to be egging him on all the time. It’s fantastic - for me the finest thing on the disc.

Kaufmann’s Walter is lyrical and sweeping, an interpretation that builds in waves. Just hearing the narration on its own without the Prize Song is quite limiting - for that you’ll have to go to his first solo recital disc - but it still sounds lovely. So does Lohengrin’s Grail Narration, but the difference between this and the one he gave us on Sehnsucht is that on this album we get the extended version with the section telling us how he came to journey to Elsa’s aid. It hasn’t been recorded often - only Leinsdorf, Barenboim and Bychkov include it in their complete recordings - because it tends to hold up the action. It somewhat dampens the climax after the revelation of his name, but it’s still compelling to listen to because of the sense of growth with which Kaufmann endows it.

The other novelty is the Wesendonck Lieder, which are normally assigned to a female voice. Kaufmann argues a convincing case that they can suit the right tenor just as much. He shows the keen ear for detail that you hear in his other lieder recitals, and he can inflect a phrase with remarkable depth of meaning. My favourite was Im Treibhaus, which treads the boundary between pain and beauty very capably, but the ardour you find in the other songs is just as compelling.

For me, it’s two thumbs up for this disc, then. I imagine that many of these pieces Kaufmann will never touch again, but that doesn’t make the disc any less wonderful musically. It stands as a reminder of the greatness of both the singer and the composer.

A high profile treat that reminds us of the greatness of both the singer and the composer.

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